By George Friedman
Turkey did two very important things yesterday. First, it apologized to Russia for shooting down a Russian fighter plane in its airspace last November. Second, it announced that it is normalizing relations with Israel. The relationship was disrupted after an incident between a Turkish flotilla to Gaza and Israeli special forces, in which several Turks were killed. The two settlements are a major move toward defusing hostility with both countries and shift the geopolitics of the region once again.
Historically, Turkey has been close to Israel and hostile to Russia. During the Cold War, Turkey was part of NATO and a key element in containing the Russians. The Russia-Turkey rivalry stems from vying for domination of the Black Sea and adjacent regions. As for Israel, Turkey’s secular regime had an interest in protecting itself and the Muslim world, particularly the Arabs. Therefore, the two countries cooperated economically and militarily.
The Russian intervention in Syria disrupted Turkish relations with Russia, which for a time had been amicable due to mutual energy interests. The Turks opposed Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Russians wanted to protect it. When Russian aircraft began conducting airstrikes against anti-Assad forces in Syria, the Turks saw this as a threat to their interests and sent a signal by shooting down a Russian aircraft. The signal resulted in the rupture of relations.
The rise of an Islamist government in Turkey led to a rupture in relations with Israel. The Islamists sought to bring Muslims into the Turkish government. It saw a rising tide of Islamism and argued that the existing secular domination was no longer tenable. As the Muslim role increased, the Turkish government sought to align its actions with Islamic public opinion. It did that by sending a flotilla filled with supplies to Gaza, which is controlled by Israel. Challenging Israel made good political sense, and the deaths following Israeli interdiction gave Turkey credibility with Islamists.
However, the incident put Turkey in an extremely difficult position. U.S.-Turkish relations were already strained by Turkey’s unwillingness to follow U.S. policy in the region. Israel is a major regional power and had interests in Syria, for example, that could align with Turkish interests if the flotilla incident was put to bed. And the Russians essentially needed an apology for the plane downing for domestic political reasons. Russia would like Turkey to be less hostile toward Assad, though it’s not likely to happen.
Turkey could not be at odds with the U.S., Russia and Israel at the same time. The United States was quietly pleased with the break between Turkey and Russia, and with Turkey’s willingness to send at least limited forces into Syria. From the U.S. position, an anti-Russia Turkey is a pro-U.S. Turkey. But to stabilize its position in the region, the U.S. put pressure on Turkey and Israel to reach a reconciliation.
Reaching an accommodation with Israel is risky. Jihadists will see it as a further sign of betrayal, which could result in more terrorist bombings in Turkey. But given Turkey’s isolation in the region, it needed U.S. support and the U.S. wanted Turkey and Israel operating together. The Turks needed some cover, so they will be able to get supplies to Gaza and call it a weakening of Israel’s blockade. The economic and strategic benefits to Israel are substantial.
But this agreement left the Turks with a hostile Russia. As I said, the U.S. didn’t mind this, but the Turks apparently did. They saw themselves locked into the American alliance with Israel and an anti-Russian alliance with Poland. If they allowed this to continue, they would wind up in pretty much the same position as they were during the Cold War: a pawn of U.S. policy.
So, Turkey coupled the agreement with Israel with an apology to Russia. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not like to apologize and the Turkish public will see it as a capitulation. But the alternative would be to lose all room for maneuver in their region. The apology to Russia opens the door for cooperation, but it doesn’t mean that will happen. It tells the U.S. not to take Turkey for granted.
The Israelis, it should be noted, have been flirting with the Russians for several months. And the Russians would like to be portrayed as the peacemakers. Obviously, the Israelis had discussed Turkey with them. But Israel must have an outside patron, and Russia does not have the depth and stability to provide Israel with what it needs. Still, keeping the U.S. off balance is necessary for any ally.
There are two ways to view this. One way is that the complexity of the region requires extreme agility by all players, and few are as agile as the Turks. There will be many reversals and maneuvers in the future. The other way starts with our forecast that Turkey will become the dominant power in the region. On the way to this goal, the U.S. will try to lock Turkey into a relationship. Turkey cannot allow that to happen, if it is to be a major power. All relationships must be temporary, and you try not to go home with the guy who brought you. This strategy will confuse those for whom policy means clarity. In Turkey’s case, foreign policy consists of confusing the issue as much as possible. And so they did.